One of the things that Australian cinema has for a long time been lacking in is, not to put to a fine a point on it, poetry. But if there is any filmmaker who is striving to change this situation, then it is Amiel Courtin-Wilson. In an œuvre that he has developed since his teenage years, the 40-year-old Courtin-Wilson has crossed the boundaries between documentary and fiction, cinema and performance art, shorts and feature-length works. What remains as a constant, however, progressively honed across all of his output, no matter how seemingly minor or inconsequential, is the concern he displays for a profoundly poetic sensitivity towards the visual image. In persisting with this aesthetic vision, he has not only managed to overcome numerous institutional obstacles, he also serves, today, as a source of inspiration for a new generation of young Australian cinéastes, as independent in their cinematic style as they are in their approach to film production. Courtin-Wilson is presently in post-production on The Empyrean – his upcoming, Oklahoma-set third fiction feature film, after the coruscating verve of Hail (2011) and the glaucous grime of Ruin (2013). Taking a break from the editing table, the director spoke with Senses of Cinema, and took a look back at his lifelong ardour for the cinema.
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DF: I had the opportunity to watch some of the short films you’ve made, and one of them, Pash, despite being on the surface an insignificant entry in your œuvre, really struck me as having major ramifications for your later work.
ACW: Adolescence/Pash represented a real shift in how I worked. I had always been fascinated by Altman and how he talked about setting up situations and then being able to observe details, and the idea of performers staying in character permanently whether or not they have dialogue in any given scenario. So my DOP Germain McMicking and I used this as a chance to explore that technique. We cast 30 kids from Princess Hill, 30 kids from Sandringham, and had the space pre-lit so the kids could go anywhere in the house. We had two 16mm cameras and just had ten dramatic points I wanted to hit, none of which had dialogue, but they could be visually conveyed, like a kid getting bullied or a girl passing out, and we knew the general arc in which the party was going to unfold.
It was the first time I had the chance to explore the idea of harnessing the chaos of a situation and working with the force of a scenario that you have to somehow smuggle your dramatic ideas into. None of the kids had really acted before but within about twenty minutes the energy of this party really took over, and the kids forgot the cameras were even there. I would just go over and whisper details to the kids and get them to act things out (without telling the other kids), and the beauty of this was not only did you have this thing unfold in a very uncontrolled environment, all the actions around the event were really authentic because they really thought a fight was breaking out, for example. So you get this added energy from that. So that definitely marked for me the genesis of this current way of working and trying to find different entry points for something that sits between documentary and drama.
DF: Throughout all your work the threshold between documentary and fiction is exploded. But if you go back to an earlier film like Chasing Buddha, that was something more preconceived, where you had a concrete idea that you implemented rather than letting the chaos of a situation direct your own filmmaking.
ACW: That was born of being taught screenwriting by Dennis Smith and Darryl Dellora at RMIT, and they had come from a highly authored documentary school. Up until taking that course I had thought of documentary in the observational mould, but they really impressed upon me the importance of writing a storyline with necessary archetypes, with protagonists and antagonists, and then going out to find those characters. With Chasing Buddha, I had a Buddhist nun (my aunt), who was teaching Buddhism in various prisons around the country, so I knew I needed a prison warden who was going to be a fundamentalist Christian who was not going to be into Robina’s mode of teaching, and also fundamentalist Christian inmates, as well as acolytes or devotees, and it was just about finding these characters so you could have the necessary spread of argument or counter-argument for any given sequence. But that film was more heavily storyboarded than any of my subsequent feature films. It was also weirdly informed by Raising Arizona. I suppose I structured Chasing Buddha as a road movie and used the lexicon of the road movie for the Super-8 sequences. I was also very interested in using the aesthetic of Super-8 for its home-movie implications, like a heightened psychological, traumatic space, the shared memory of what that format triggers. So for that film I had constructed a 70-page screenplay before we had shot any footage whatsoever. And that method was also really informed by fear, because I was an 18-year-old kid shooting with a crew of two people. And we were thrust into these insanely high-pressure situations: like we had only four hours to film all the prison material in Chasing Buddha.
DF: Did you find that in the end limiting or frustrating as an approach?
ACW: Obviously I would make that film so differently now, but I think I was just trying to keep my head above water. I was just going off instinct and trying to think about documentary as cinematically as possible. And I had never been to the United States at that point. So I had this idea of the American landscape, and my aunt drove a Buick. She’s this amazingly dramatic figure of a woman of five foot nothing in maroon robes walking in the prison grounds. That was what drew me to the subject matter, it seemed so cinematic to begin with: Robina is such a vibrant, dynamic, complex character. I was also interested in setting up simple motifs in the film, like the idea of the fire shown throughout the Super-8 segues. It’s a Buddhist practice that any sacred materials can’t be disposed of, they have to be burnt, and that seemed like a perfect metaphor for how Robina had dealt with her previous identity as a militant left-wing feminist, she had left these husks of herself behind in very dramatic fashion.
DF: The use of Super-8 also gives the material a very textural quality. From Chasing Buddha to the present day, using different types of film stock, or doing different types of thing with film and digital has been important to you.
ACW: I remember very early on being so taken by watching old video Portapak footage, I think it must have been in old music clips from Countdown, I remember being absolutely fascinated by the traces of the white flares left behind by the tubes of old video cameras. There was something about that impressionistic electric smear quality of that format. There’s a very strong series of emotional cues that are hit with each format. Even going into the specificity of the differences between Hi-8 and VHS and Betacam and DV, or Pixelvision. It was no coincidence that Dogme had just happened in ’96, ’97. I felt so ridiculously lucky to have come of age at that time. I just felt so blessed to have access to this technology. I had joined a Super-8 film group when I was fourteen, I was member of Ska-TV, shooting punk shows, going to the cinémathèque, and I was hugely aware of the industrial limitations placed on older documentary filmmakers like the Maysles. So I was also drawn to documentary because I came of age at that very distinct intersection of technology and filmmaking.
DF: In retrospect, it was a unique moment that you were lucky enough to live through because you saw the introduction of a new technology but also the survival of the old technology, and you had the ability to use multiple formats that today is increasingly less open to filmmakers, who are beholden to a single dominant format. That was a moment, lasting maybe twenty years, where filmmakers had this unimaginable freedom. And you were probably unaware of it at that time, but you made the most of it.
ACW: I’d been making Super-8 films for five years before Chasing Buddha, so I was a product of doing punch-and-crunch VHS editing, editing on U-Matic tapes, using a vision mixer, but simultaneous to that I was cutting films on film. So with my first science-fiction I shot over two years from 14 to 16, I would wear white gloves and had a Super-8 splicer and 150 pegs with my shots listed, so I was kind of schooled on those two techniques simultaneously. When Avid came out I just could not express to you how unbelievably exciting it was to think that you could duplicate a shot in a digital space, that you could reverse a shot at the press of a button, things that are banal today, but the still seems kind of magical to me. It’s crazy. I remember in Year 4 I did a film called Eye Dust which was a gangster film about smuggling cocaine inside glass eyes and it was shot on VHS, and I was a huge fan of The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon at that time…
DF: Most 11-year-olds, a) aren’t watching The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon and b) aren’t making their own films. This sounds like a pretty unique childhood.
ACW: My parents knew I was totally obsessed. I had books on the history of RKO, Warner Bros., Paramount. I’d get obsessed with actors and track down every film they’d made. One of the most formative moments for me was watching the opening sequence of Dog Day Afternoon. There was just an authenticity and an energy to that title sequence, and the film as a whole, and there was something there that I knew I wanted to emulate. I remember being drawn to films that had a different kind of energy about them. I was a fan of Altman early on, and I remember seeing Paul Morrissey films on VHS when I was 14. I remember the shot of Joe d’Alessandro getting a blow job in Trash and it tore my head off because there was a world there that had a different energy to it. At age 10 I had this whole career trajectory mapped out. I thought I was either going to take Altman’s route and go via industrial and documentary films (which I pretty much ended up doing), or Ridley Scott’s route (which is absolutely what I didn’t end up doing), which was make some money from ads and then shift to feature film productions. I saw Faces when I was 17, and I was drawn to that tactile, familial nature of making a film. It all came from my Dad primarily. My parents were both painters, and my Dad was a big Fellini and Antonioni fan. I totally loved Bertolucci and Buñuel. He showed me Zabriskie Point and at the end I burst into tears because I was so stressed about not understanding what the film was about.
I was just a totally voracious and precocious little kid in that respect. I would watch ten films every weekend from the video store. Then when I was twelve I met my friend Vinnie and we embarked on making films together for the next ten years, before we parted ways in our early twenties. At the same time as Chasing Buddha I was working for ABC doing short-form TV work for Recovery. We had a contract where we would shoot little portraits of electronic musicians every week. I also worked as a live video projectionist for a venue in Melbourne called Revolver, so I would compile these crazy six-hour video sets with found footage to be projected in the background at the club. So even back then I was interested in doing conventional documentary, but also Super-8 experiments and even live installation-type stuff.
DF: There was another ABC project you were involved in at the time, which kind of sounds like it was a traumatic primal scene, against which everything you’ve ever done since then has been a kind of act of vengeance.
ACW: Consumer digital video had just come out. I was approached by my high school to be a subject in this series called Home Truths. It was a video diary format. The ABC was jumping at the chance to create new types of stories, and they put cameras in the hands of five or six subjects around the country. My job was to direct and shoot an hour’s worth of video each week for an entire year – diary footage essentially. That same year I won a prize at the St. Kilda film festival, and was doing well at school, but when the series came to be broadcast it was an utterly traumatising experience because they’d excised all the stuff of me working on my films and winning awards and all that was left was me getting drunk, getting tattoos and piercings, being an obnoxious shithead. I remember being so incensed and hurt because I assumed they wouldn’t do a hatchet job on me, but nothing could be done because I’d signed away my rights. And for two months after it aired I had people yelling at me on the street.
Weirdly I had a chance to correct history seven years later on George Negus Tonight, I had a half-hour with him and shot some follow-up material a la Seven-Up. But it wasn’t until a couple of years later with Chasing Buddha that I found myself going to the same documentary conferences as these producers who had exploited the fuck out of me. It really did inform how I thought about working with documentary subjects. There’s a real slash and burn cynicism to how they mould people’s stories on screen. It’s not malevolent, but there’s an underlying callousness that I had an aversion to.
DF: There are three films that I think form a triptych now in your work: Bastardy, Hail and The Silent Eye, because they’re all centred on a relationship that you have with an individual in your life, and all three figures (Jack Charles, Danny, Cecil Taylor) actually have a lot in common, there’s a lot that binds them together as human beings. You don’t approach them as “subjects”, you approach them as humans first, and then a film comes out of that. The relationship comes first and the film comes second.
ACW: In many respects the documentary films I’ve made can be seen as a series of concentric circles: my first film was about myself, the second was about my aunt. Islands was about my best friend, and Bastardy was about a family friend. My family had known Jack since the 1960s. My uncle was involved in the Pram Factory. My aunt actually suggested Jack as a documentary subject. But I had come from this highly scripted, highly authored school of documentary, and Bastardy really exploded that for me. When I started filming with Jack I realised that his life was exponentially more anarchic than what I could have anticipated, and what I thought would be a three-month process eventually took seven years. But there’s kind of a sage-like dignity in all three of these men that enables them to absorb a trauma in their life. All three had been marginalised by society, pigeon-holed in their social strata, but they had managed to transcend and fight their way through with a great sense of dignity. I was drawn to learning from them how they’d made it through and survive as human beings, finding a path through life that had worked for them. That’s my very real curiosity about not just their biographical details, but at their very core, what are the traits in them that have allowed them to conjure the strength to survive.
DF: In all three there is also a story of redemption, which is a common theme throughout your work, but in particular it’s redemption through art: becoming an actor, or a musician or whatever, and that this is what allows them to overcome those traumas in their lives. So these films say something about the role of art in human existence.
ACW: Both Jack and Cecil said very explicitly that they’d likely not be walking the earth if it wasn’t for their art. Certainly for Cecil that was what allowed him to survive. A quote from his mum very early on was: “You’re black and Native American, you’ve got to try twice as hard.” So he was carrying that around with him from as early as he could remember. You can feel that there’s an absolute necessity that’s pouring out of the person. So they have been stories of redemption. Ironically, it was the comparatively short-sighted view of Australian funding bodies in relation to Jack’s story that made that film happen. It wasn’t until there was a “happy ending” to Jack’s story that they gave the film finishing funds. As was said to me by a couple of TV stations early on: “We’re just not that interested in an aboriginal junkie.” But an aboriginal junkie who gets clean and returns to acting is a different matter. I have explored making one or two films with people with whom I didn’t necessarily have that admiration or reverence (which I also felt for my parents while growing up, with their painting and their art), and also a really strong work ethic, a strong sense of discipline, that the work goes above all else.
DF: Watching Bastardy recently, the way in which you capture a certain place and time, with the scenes where Jack is walking around the streets of Fitzroy in the early- to mid-2000s, is extremely palpable. I’m sure you weren’t thinking about that at the time, but that for me is why films are interesting, because they can have a density or an aura to them that goes beyond the filmmaker’s intentions, and that we may not even notice until many years later.
ACW: That was an interesting, and at times difficult, transition to make, from that more structured approach with archival footage and recreations, to just travelling in Jack’s slipstream, where we would start shooting in the morning at 11 o’clock and half an hour later we’d find ourselves in a housing commission flat in Fitzroy with a heroin dealer who’d just been robbed by an angry rival heroin gang, and then finding yourself at a poet’s studio, and then under a bridge. So what was really fascinating but difficult was trying to piece together just what made up Jack’s day to day existence, because he led such an unpredictable life. And it wasn’t until he’d got off heroin that we were able to fill in all the gaps and go to those other places, because at that time his main interest was getting enough money to score every day. But I’m really glad that you say that about Bastardy because for me one of my favourite scenes in that film is where Jack’s singing on Smith Street, and I wish there had been a chance to have more of those moments in the film.
DF: In some sense Hail was a new direction for you, in that it was your first feature-fiction, but in another sense all your films are cinematic in a way that doesn’t pay any attention to that documentary-fiction divide, and Bastardy does it on one side, while Hail does it on the other side. And a lot of it is coming from Danny. The genesis of the project came from your encounter with Danny in prison.
ACW: I’d been put in touch with this prison theatre company Plan B in 2005, and I shot a whole documentary about that theatre company (which I’ve yet to actually edit). I met Danny at a church rehearsal space in Footscray on the day of his release. He’d signed up for this theatre company and I very timidly asked if I could document his rehearsal. I was instantly struck by the sheer intensity of these amazing reptilian eyes that Danny has, and almost felt the need to lower myself in his presence.
But over six months of interviewing Danny we became very close friends, and Cicada grew out of that process. That was another real turning point for me: Pash was the first turning point, but Cicada was a turning point because I’d interviewed Dan about this formative trauma in his life, witnessing a murder when he was five. The original story, the way he’d told it, was about an hour long. I knew I wanted to make this as a short about his experience but it had to be edited down so I transcribed the interview and cut it down to an 8-page monologue that refined and distilled all the beautiful, poetic turns of phrase that he uses, so I gave it back to him and said “How about we experiment with you learning your own words as you would learn a monologue,” and because we were shooting on 16mm we only had three rolls of film to shoot the whole short. When I saw how well Danny was able to reabsorb a distilled version of his own story, while retaining the emotional core of what he was telling, it instantly made me realise that you could extrapolate a larger version of that.
So that was the genesis of how Hail was born – thinking, “Okay I can almost create an inverted biopic.” Usually in a biopic the major events in a person’s life are the things that are true, and the minutiae of their world are a construct. But I was interested in inverting that, creating fictional turning points that can give shape to a story, but the minutiae of the film should be as close to documentary as possible. Those scenes are basically documentary covered in a narrative skin. That said, the main misconception of that film is that it was impromptu or unstructured. Actually, we rehearsed the film with Danny and his wife Leanne for close to four months. Even though there was improvisation on the day, and certain scenes were purely documentary, by the time we got to the film, they had been riffing on the material for months. When you’re watching the film, it’s easy to assume that I just turned up to Danny’s house and we’d just see what would happen, but it was totally scheduled and planned as you would shoot a regular feature film.
DF: It must also have been necessary for Danny and Leanne that they were playing characters which, while they obviously had a relationship with themselves, had to be distinguished from them. Is this why you needed that long lead-in process, to develop them as characters?
ACW: The rehearsals were really as much about writing as they were about acting. You might audition fifteen characters and document every audition, and inevitably Dan would say slightly different lines, or there’d be interesting details in each of these fifteen variations. And I would transcribe all of that and distill it down into what would be the final scene. It was a great luxury to have that time. You’re right that Danny and Leanne did have to elevate versions of themselves or aspects of themselves in that performance, but there’s also a third dislocation or transformation of who they were which was in the edit, realising that at a certain point the story of this character Danny in the film was never going to be able to encompass the full spectrum of who Danny is as a person. It was going to be a story of loss and his regression to an animal state of anger and trauma. So it was only halfway through the edit that we realised we had to excise these other elements of Danny: the levity, the humour, the mischief that he has. That stuff had to be cut to give you a cleaner line through the narrative. Thinking about the film in terms of portraiture, it was a difficult lesson to learn that somehow we had to place a frame around Danny the character. It was only when we surrendered to that that we were able to find a shape to the final edit of the film that was streamlined enough to enable you to have access to it.
DF: There’s a scene that is actually quite a minor scene in the film but that’s really stuck with me, which is where Danny goes for a job at a garage and ends up buffing the cars. It’s strangely powerful.
ACW: In real life he was a car detailer and he would tell stories about the joy that he found in getting the perfect sheen on the bonnet of a beautiful BMW. Again, it comes back to this amazing dignity in these people’s respective crafts: whether it’s Jack in ceramics, or Cecil playing the piano, or Danny working as a car detailer. I’m so glad you responded to that scene because for me there’s such robust yet delicate joy in seeing the pride he takes in his craft. And that kind of moment is something that is a perfect example of the kind of storytelling that sits outside of any documentary-fiction distinction, and just allows a grand story to be told, which we can see in his eyes at that point.
DF: In Cicada, I feel like there’s the beginning of a metaphysics in your cinema, which may be there in your earlier films but here it’s pushed to the forefront. It’s the idea of a battle between good and evil that resides within everyone. It seems to be something that you’re exploring to a greater and greater degree in your later films, thinking as a filmmaker about these bigger questions.
ACW: It’s such a subtle distinction in the sound mix in Cicada but there is a point right at the end of the film where he talks about every moment requiring a choice, and we just shifted the quality of Dan’s voice in that one line, so there’s a different quality in his voice that was meant to subliminally give you a sense that he’s channelling that other energy.
DF: The other aspect of Hail (it’s even there in the title) is the presence of the natural elements: with fire, and snow, and water. Amiel, I’m starting to see the work of the gods in your films.
ACW: As I get older and start to make better choices in my own life, I’m increasingly interested in the fragility of people’s lives. Certainly in The Empyrean, when people make choices that hurt those around them (and in some respects my films are getting more personal, in the sense of a purging of past transgressions), there is a growing respect for and interest in those key moments in people’s lives when small choices can impact on them and the people around them for the rest of their lives. There’s a sense of the importance of mindfulness I suppose, and maybe it relates to the act of making a film as being a meditation of sorts, and hoping that the final work will reflect that implicitly, or at least be charged with that intent. I’m interested in the core things that connect us and the connectivity that comes through the elements, and the ability to transform oneself in the moment.
DF: There’s a sense in your films that you’re being guided by a poetic voice that you just have to put your faith into, in terms of the aesthetic decisions you’re making, whether in the moment of shooting or in the moment of editing. It’s not schematic, it’s instinctive, and there’s a leap of faith involved in that. You have to trust that there’s something there in the material, and that that moment of judgement is the right one.
ACW: If you were to put a formative experience on where the logic of that abstraction is driven by, when I was six years old, my parents had just got divorced, and I would travel from house to house each week, sitting in the back of the car at night, crying uncontrollably and I remember looking up at the passing street lights through the car window and the lights would be refracted through my tears, and I remember finding solace in that, by escaping into an abstraction which could transform a moment of pain into a moment of reverie, and that’s basically what the tearing white light sequence in Hail is trying to recreate. And certainly it’s increasingly interesting to me, this refraction of light, but it all comes back to that key experience. It’s something that’s very personal. While it is instinctive, it’s also functional and has a clear use. Maybe that’s lost on a lot of the crew: why I’m interested in filming through glass bottles and water and what have you, but I think that’s where it all stems from.
DF: Maybe most of the crew doesn’t understand what you’re doing but with Germain McMicking at least you seem to have a kind of psychic bond which allows you to create those images together, and that’s a rare collaborative relationship to have.
ACW: In Hail it’s governed by an interest in the Spinozist idea of immanence, of God being in all things, and being in the inanimate. I remember a key bit of direction I gave to Germain early on in the shooting of Hail was that I wanted to have God reveal himself in every image – and he took up the challenge! There’s a particular photographer, Edward Weston, who speaks about the way in which an object goes through three phases, which is both relative to the degree of abstraction, but also dependent on the temporal space in which it is interpreted. So if you stare at an image of a rock, you recognise it as a rock, if you stare at it longer it’s no longer a rock, and then when you stare at it even longer it becomes a third thing, which is neither the rock nor the not-a-rock. So I’m interested in the audience having to navigate something and then sit in it long enough for that to reveal itself.
DF: This seems to be where the influence of Philippe Grandrieux on your work might come in.
ACW: I remember the first Grandrieux film I experienced was La Vie nouvelle at the Melbourne Film Festival, and as everyone else was madly exiting the cinema halfway through the film I was in a state of ecstasy. I just felt so untethered from what I had previously thought was possible in a feature film, and feel similarly about Un lac. There’s a freedom in his filmmaking, but also not dissimilar to Brakhage with films like The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, it’s clear that whatever’s being documented, there’s this grasping for something that is revealing itself in the moment, and there’s a malleability to the forms that are being recorded, which I suppose has attendant connections to materialist cinema. The tearing white light in Hail is not a just a representation of Danny’s psyche disassembling, but you’re actually witnessing his mind.
DF: I feel like Danny’s eyes are the ultimate expression of this ability of film to capture something that can’t be simulated by an actor, there’s a reality there that can not be substituted for. There’s a deep soul in there somehow that’s coming through in his eyes. And cinema is able to capture that in a way that no other medium can.
ACW: I’m still captivated by a more traditional idea of performance and I’m still actively seeking out a story to tell in which the characters do require actors playing roles, and I love endless examples of films in which that’s the case. I just haven’t yet embarked upon that kind of story. I’m just still entangled and intrigued and in love with charting those depths. I’ve found a different way in with The Empyrean. Again, it involves looking at a cast of characters playing elevated versions of themselves.
DF: With Ruin, in some way the same methodology is guiding you with that work, but you’re doing it in Cambodia, not filming in English, so that’s a big obstacle to overcome. So how did you negotiate that?
ACW: It was a frightening and thrilling process to embark upon with Michael Cody, the co-director, and in part it was the rapidity with which the film was made, and because there’s something about co-directing that allowed for a lack of preciousness, and an openness to more experimentation. Obviously, not understanding Khmer but still trying to make an improvised film, we chose to eschew the level of dialogue that we would have previously worked with. We tried to turn what was initially an obstacle into a strength, which was the gestural and the physical presence of the performers in the film. So in many respects I learnt a whole different series of skills directing actors purely based on gesture and behaviour. You’d go through a 10 or 15-minute take not understanding a single word of what was being said, so the only compass you had was their physicality. It’s also what led to the film taking on this fable-like, tonal quality. Once we’d discovered this epic Cambodian poem, the Reamker, about this mermaid who lures a monkey god into a reverie, it provided us with this access point which allowed the actors to embody these larger archetypes in the story. It was a fascinating common ground for us to inhabit, to find a way through their performance style. When we chose to give over to this fable-like tone, that’s where we found a more distilled version of the film, a kind of soporific fairy tale.
DF: One of the stand-out scenes in that film, for better or worse, is the scene with the English sex tourist, which is probably the moment in your filmmaking career where I’ve felt the most torn as a spectator, where you straddled the moral divide and almost fell into it. It’s a perilous scene to make. You’re confronting moral questions, political questions, questions of representation in multiple senses of the word. So how do you chart a path through those ethical quagmires?
ACW: In the case of Ruin, because of my naïveté, not knowing anything about the country, we put a lot of faith in our Cambodian female producer Kulikar Sotho, both in the writing of the story, the research, but also she was our on-set translator, so in many ways she was the filter through which we passed all the material, in terms of authenticity, in terms of what was appropriate. With that particular scene it was really key that we shot the scene with multiple female cinematographers, that Kulikar was there to make sure that the actress Sang Malen was comfortable with what was going on. I was really saddened by some of the critical responses to the film, not because their points weren’t valid, in terms of two white men going to Cambodia to tell this story, but because they hadn’t bothered to talk to the Cambodian performers, to the Cambodian producer, and also to hear the reception of the film in Cambodia. It reminded me of what Jack said about Bastardy. Understandably a lot of the aboriginal community were pretty suspicious of this young white filmmaker making a film about Jack Charles. And as Jack had said to them: “Well no one else is making a film about me.” I think what was a misconception on some critics’ part was the degree of collaboration, a la Hail, with the performers. It wasn’t two white guys writing a script in Melbourne and bringing it to Cambodia. We landed in Cambodia not knowing if we were going to make a film, or just take a series of photos, or just make a dance film. The script grew from our work with the Cambodians that we were collaborating with.
But to be honest, I don’t know if I’d make Ruin now. I totally take on board the notion that the sex scene is not appropriate, and we’ve had enough of men directing scenes of sexual violence perpetrated against women. I wouldn’t include that scene if I were to make the film again. Even if it felt OK at the time, I feel that I am now more acutely sensitised to that in cinema in general. My sensitivity to that kind of material has really shifted fundamentally.
DF: That’s an important realisation to come to.
ACW: That’s not to say that I’m not interested in that in a documentary context. I’m working on a documentary on a child murderer, Kevin Underwood, but there’s a big difference between exploring the motivations and psychology and societal forces at play that lead to men committing such acts, and thinking it’s OK to shoot a dramatised version.
DF: The genesis of The Empyrean seems quite interesting: was it the place that came first (Oklahoma)? In most films, the story comes first, then the place, then actors. Here it seems it’s the place that came first, then the actors, then finally the story as the endpoint of the process.
ACW: The reason we were in Oklahoma was for the Kevin Underwood documentary. My producer Kate Laurie and I went on a research trip to Oklahoma in mid-2015. But we hit a snag with gaining access to Kevin in prison. At that point we were looking to cast a group of young Oklahomans to play younger versions of Kevin, and four days into that shoot I was in a 7-11, and I saw these two men getting a slurpee, and they turned out to be Odie and Jesse. The origin of the film was a story Odie told me about a girlfriend he had who committed suicide when he was 15, and it led to a vertiginous fever-state for two weeks in which I wrote a treatment for the film, which was this kind of stream-of-consciousness outpouring of a lot of sex and death, and an attempt to marry a lot of things that I love about the cinema, and try to tell a larger story on a larger canvas with more characters. From there we proceeded to cast a number of other actors. We shot the film over two years with five separate shoots, and we ended up shooting more than 600 hours of material. In some respects it’s the most organic process we’ve embarked upon, in terms of continually adding characters, adding scenarios, letting the characters’ worlds inform the narrative.
The film Charles grew out of the first week of shooting in Oklahoma. We’d shoot the necessary dramatic scenes for the film, as well as these slow-motion portraits of the characters in situ, that could be used both in the film but also in a video installation context. But at its core it was about Germain and I sitting down and saying how can we re-sensitise ourselves to a fundamentally exhilarating process where we don’t know what the outcome is going to be, and where we can be alive to possibilities, to inform a different form of storytelling. So it was trying to collapse everything I’ve learnt to date, and at once set fire to it, but also further certain elements of the methodology. The film is going to be two films: there will be a fiction film called The Empyrean and a documentary called Underwood.
DF: In The Empyrean, there’s also the role of the locality. Oklahoma is such a unique place because you have the monumentality of the natural landscape and then there’s almost this post-civilisational quality to the human landscape. It’s a place that has gone through industrial development and then fallen out the other side, leaving behind a kind of human wreckage that’s tragic in one sense, but they also haven’t lost their community.
ACW: I’m also really interested as a further exploration of this idea of the way that trauma is inscribed on the body, and the way there is a scarred landscape, but also these scarred bodies. Sexuality plays such a strong part in the film because it’s about these people trying to re-sensitise themselves to one another and also to themselves, so there’s a desperate urgency in the sex in the film because it’s about trying to tear down or scrub away the natural kinds of mediation or artifice that are put in place for them both, in terms of class or race. The fact that we’re working with Native Americans (Odie’s Cherokee and Claire has Canadian indigenous heritage). What I couldn’t predict when travelling to Oklahoma is that there’s such a potent melancholy in that place. But drawing a line back through to Cecil and Jack, it’s ultimately, for me, about the way these people are able to absorb that adversity and transcend it through seeking out intimacy with those around them, and forging a dysfunctional surrogate family.
DF: You combine two aesthetics that are often seen as being counterposed in the cinema: on the one hand, a kind of quotidian social-realism focusing on the marginalised layers of society, which you capture very strongly in your films, and then on the other hand an openness to lyrical abstraction and visual expressiveness. You’re trying to fuse the two.
ACW: It’s a great point. Even going back to Hail I was interested in there being a mythical or operatic emotional scale in the film, and colliding the mythic with the social-realist. That comes from the sheer sense of scale of the human beings that I’ve met with and befriended. It’s about trying to capture the yearnings of these people, which are immense and know no bounds. Restricting yourself to the cinematic lexicon of observational documentary wouldn’t do justice to the immensity of these characters’ interior lives.
DF: For you, everyone possesses their own mythological grandeur, even someone who is homeless, or has led a life of crime, or grown up in a shitty town, they still have that quality to them.
ACW: Some of the most moving instances I can think of from the shoot were street-casting homeless guys for this particular AA scene. It’s partly what I learnt from documentary: the act of bearing witness to people being an empowering thing in and of itself. It’s probably most clearly exemplified in Charles, in the beatific serenity of this man’s interior world, and trying to convey what I felt in meeting him, even though he was a man suffering from schizophrenia and living out the back of a 7-11. Trying to capture that is something that I’m still grappling with and I still feel like I have a long way to go on that front. Yeah. There’s something about a godless mysticism in there, too.